Southern apprehensiveness about the Van Buren-Johnson ticket becomes more understandable in light of renewed northern antislavery activity at this time. Jackson's presidency coincided with the formation of state and national antislavery societies, the publication of William Lloyd Garrison's Liberator , and the expansion of abolitionist efforts to awaken the nation's conscience. Although abolitionists focused primarily on nonpolitical tactics, their activities inevitably intruded into politics. During the last two years of the Jackson administration, therefore, the slavery issue was reintroduced to American politics for the first time since the fiery Missouri debates of 1819–1821.
In the summer of 1835, shortly after the Democratic convention adjourned, antislavery forces organized a campaign to distribute propaganda tracts through the mails to the South. The southern response was predictable. Southern state legislatures passed laws to keep out such "incendiary literature," and many southern postmasters refused to deliver abolitionist mail. At Charleston, South Carolina, on 29 July, a mob of some three hundred incensed citizens stormed the post office to seize abolitionist material. Although persuaded to disperse, a few Carolinians returned that night and took possession of the literature, which they burned the following evening on the Charleston parade grounds.
The Jackson administration's handling of this controversy has generally been interpreted as evidence of its southern orientation. According to one account, the Democratic party's pro-South and pro-slavery bias was the "darker side to Jacksonian Democracy." The Jackson administration certainly was hostile to abolitionism and any efforts to disturb the South's "peculiar institution." It showed a continuing solicitude for southern opinion and interests, and it embraced the racial tenets of "herrenvolk democracy," which affirmed the equality of whites and their superiority over non-whites. Jackson himself was a substantial planter, owning many slaves, and while he insisted that they be treated "humanely," he showed no disposition to disturb the legal and constitutional arrangements that maintained the slave system. Yet Jackson's position on the slavery issue was more complex than this.
The Democratic party was a national organization, and northern attitudes about slavery and civil liberties had to be given weight. Moreover, Jackson's denunciation of abolitionism did not signify that he considered slavery a positive or permanent good. Rather, he thought that by maintaining sectional calm, Providence would, in time, somehow eradicate the evil. Indeed, he generally perceived the growing slavery controversy as artificial and political, with both abolitionists and southern extremists seeking to divide the Union to serve their separate ends. The permanency of the Union and the American experiment in liberty went hand in hand; both were directly threatened by agitation over slavery. And so, too, was the Democratic party. The administration therefore sought to put a damper on the slavery issue by placating southern worries while resisting extreme proslavery demands.
With Jackson vacationing in Virginia, the administration's initial response to the mails controversy fell to the recently appointed postmaster general, Amos Kendall. Seeking to intercept the mails with as little noise and difficulty as possible, Kendall adopted an evasive strategy of refusing officially to sanction the action of local postmasters who detained the mail, but also declining to order it delivered. He thus left postmasters to their own discretion.
Upon learning of the situation in Charleston, Jackson angrily denounced the abolitionists as "monsters" and suggested that those who subscribed to the papers have their names recorded by the postmaster and exposed in the public newspapers. Yet Jackson did not justify mob action or the complete interdiction of abolitionist mailings. He denounced the "spirit of mob-law" as evidenced in Charleston and thought that the instigators should be "checked and punished." Reminding Kendall that federal officials had "no power to prohibit anything from being transported in the mails that is authorized by the law," he suggested that the papers be delivered only to those who were "really subscribers."
The mails controversy became a leading question when Congress convened in December 1835. In his annual message, Jackson noted the "painful excitement" caused by the abolitionist tracts and recommended that Congress prohibit their circulation in the South. His proposal prompted a heated debate in the Senate when Calhoun objected to giving Congress power to exclude material. Such authority, Calhoun alleged, would equally permit the federal government to "open the gates to the flood of incendiary publications."
Calhoun urged that state law, not Congress, be the arbiter of what was incendiary, and in February 1836, he reported a bill declaring it unlawful for postmasters in states and territories to receive and put into the mail any material "touching" the subject of slavery that was addressed to any area where such material was prohibited. Not everyone found Calhoun's distinction clear. At least one key Jacksonian asserted that Calhoun's bill was actually an administration measure because it ultimately relied upon federal authority to enforce the ban.
Northern Whigs led the opposition to Calhoun's bill, protesting that it violated freedom of the press. Significantly, a number of loyal Jacksonians, including Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri and John Niles of Connecticut, also considered the proposal "preposterous and mischievous." After considerable discussion and revision, the bill barely survived a test vote in the Senate on 2 June when a tie was broken by Vice President Van Buren. It then failed on a final vote when enough northern Democrats combined with northern and borderstate Whigs to defeat it. The tally was more sectional than partisan, indicating how slavery jeopardized party unity. Eventually, toward the end of the session, the Senate approved a Post Office Department reorganization plan that explicitly forbade postmasters from detaining the mail. But southern state laws remained on the books, and federal law became, in the words of one historian, "largely a dead letter in the South."
Although Congress had failed to adopt his recommendation, it is hard to think that Jackson was disappointed by this course of events. The mails controversy subsided as southern states quietly nullified federal law without resorting to federal legislation that many northerners found objectionable. The Democratic party's position was to muffle rather than inflame the slavery issue, and the Globe , after blaming defeat for the mails bill on the Whigs, let the subject rest.
A second slavery question proved more nettle-some to the Jackson administration. This was the antislavery campaign to petition Congress for the abolition of the slave trade and slavery in the District of Columbia and in federal territories. The trouble erupted early in the session when, on 18 December 1835, South Carolina congressman James Henry Hammond announced that he "could not sit there and see the rights of the southern people assaulted day after day, by the ignorant fanatics from whom these memorials proceed." He demanded that the petitions not be received by the House.
Hammond's action precipitated a bitter debate that, in one form or another, lasted a decade. Southern radicals like Hammond intended from the outset to use the petitions as a way of ascertaining northern attitudes toward slavery and to establish the principle that slavery lay entirely outside of congressional authority. Aside from the Vermont abolitionist congressman William Slade, no northerners spoke in favor of the prayers of the petitions. Instead, northern spokesmen defended the right to have antislavery memorials respectfully received and handled. Northern Whigs again led the defense of the right of reception, but they were joined by a number of prominent Jacksonians like Samuel Beardsley of New York, who warned that northern freemen would not tolerate having their petitions forbidden or treated with scorn.
As in the mails controversy, Jacksonians tried to "sink the irritating topic into instant insignificance." After weeks of speeches and political maneuvering, Democrats eventually rallied behind a resolution offered by Henry L. Pinckney of South Carolina, calling for a select committee to deal with the materials. Southern radicals were furious that Pinckney had seemingly conceded the power of the House to act upon the subject of slavery at all. But the resolution passed the House handily, with the overwhelming majority of Democrats, particularly from the North, in support.
In May 1836, Pinckney presented his commit-tee's report to the House. Denouncing the "sickly sentimentality" of antislavery reformers, it proposed resolutions denying constitutional authority to interfere with slavery in the states; declaring that Congress "ought not" to interfere with slavery in the nation's capital; and, finally, tabling with no further action, and without printing or referral, all petitions and other material relating to the subject of slavery or its abolition. The last resolution was the famous "gag rule."
As expected, Pinckney's motions were condemned by some as an invasion of southern rights and by others as a violation of the right of petition. In order to prevent the discord from getting out of control, Jacksonian leaders quickly cut off debate by moving the previous question and rushing a vote on the resolutions. All passed easily, and the slavery issue in Congress was temporarily held in abeyance under the combined restraints of party loyalty and the gag rule.
But the controversy over petitions continued to agitate national politics, in part because the gag rule provided a concrete and attractive target for antislavery advocates who linked their cause to the broader one of civil liberties. Annual debates over the gag rule strained the Democratic party, whose members were torn between sectional allegiance and party loyalty. In 1844 enough northern Democrats refused to go along with their southern colleagues, and the gag rule died. Jackson deplored the increased sectional bitterness that marked national politics during his presidency. He urged Americans to remember that the foundations of the Constitution and the Union were laid in the "affections of the people" and in their "fraternal attachment" as members of one political family. His sentiments were heartfelt, but time would demonstrate that his appeals for moderation, for unionism, and for patience in awaiting Providence's will were ineffectual nostrums for the great moral and legal issues posed by slavery.
While the slavery controversy agitated political waters, Jackson also found rough sailing in his campaign to reform banking excesses and the nation's money supply. Although the deposit system was generally performing well, serious problems were becoming evident. The country was in the midst of an inflationary surge propelled by an influx of silver and by overbanking and speculation, and the pet banks were doing their share in dangerously expanding credit. These conditions produced a surplus of tariff and land revenues, which accumulated in the pets. Other institutions resented the pets' access to federal funds and demanded a portion.
As a result, when the administration proposed a measure to regulate the pet banks, Congress severely modified it. The resulting Deposit Act of 1836 was a multipurposed affair. It provided some needed restrictions on small paper bills but also limited the amount of federal money that could be held in each pet bank. The effect was to increase radically the number of pets and sacrifice control over the deposit system.
Even more objectionable to Jackson was a provision that distributed the surplus federal revenue to the states. Jackson had once supported distribution, though only under certain conditions, but he now considered the measure unconstitutional and inexpedient. It made the states dependent on the federal government for revenue, encouraged speculation and excessive paper issues, and created pressures on Congress to raise the tariff to replace the lost money. Indeed, he considered this measure so harmful that he actually prepared a veto. Only after Congress made federal funds a deposit subject to recall, rather than an outright grant, did he reluctantly sign the bill.
Jackson's approval was clearly motivated by practical concerns. In an election year, Democrats rivaled Whigs in promising states the benefits of the surplus, and a presidential veto would have damaged Van Buren's prospects. Besides, distribution was simply the price that Jackson had to pay for getting some degree of bank regulation.
In the aftermath of the bill's passage, Jackson made it evident that his signature spelled no retreat from his hard-money policy. In July 1836, he issued the Specie Circular, which directed government agents to receive only gold and silver in payment for public lands after December 1836, a measure designed to diminish land speculation and to "preserve the deposit banks" by increasing the specie backing of bank notes. The Specie Circular generated a storm of protest; Congress passed a bill at the close of Jackson's presidency repealing it, but Jackson pocket vetoed the bill. "I have the great republican principles to sustain, the constitution to preserve, protect and defend, and the most vital principle of it is the currency, and I have to maintain a consistency of character in all my acts to make my administration beneficial to republicanism," he explained.
Jackson's banking and currency program must receive mixed grades. The pet-bank system aggravated the inflationary pressures of the mid-1830s and contributed to the inevitable Panic of 1837, shortly after Jackson left office. His efforts to regulate and reform bank paper had only a modest effect in controlling speculation and bringing about economic stability.
Criticism of Jackson's program should be balanced by the realization that economic fluctuations are international in scope and that the federal government had only a limited ability to shape the course of economic affairs. It is doubtful the boom-and-bust cycle of the 1830s would have been avoided if Jackson had rechartered the national bank. Moreover, Jackson should be credited for the social and moral considerations that inspired his actions. He perceived, if only dimly, that the rapid changes associated with the Market Revolution undermined traditional values and relationships, and jeopardized the rough equality of condition that underpinned a republican society. His warnings about concentrations of political and economic power and about the debilitating effects of corruption have become part of the American reform tradition.