Jackson's style of reaching out for political issues was never better illustrated than his attack on the Second Bank of the United States. The bank had been chartered in 1816 to restore the country to a sound fiscal condition after near financial catastrophe during the War of 1812. It was a large corporation, managed and operated under both private and public auspices. Its capital was $35 million, partly subscribed by the United States government, and it was permitted to establish branches and issue bank notes. It was a profit-making institution that also provided public services such as transferring government funds around the country and functioning as a depository for the Treasury. Although it possessed no monopoly over the money supply, it exerted great influence over the nation's financial affairs.
After a shaky start, the bank earned a reputation for fiscal responsibility under the presidency of Nicholas Biddle. It even gained considerable popularity among state bankers, who might have looked upon their giant relative as an enemy. Still, the bank's support did not run deep; Jeffersonian constitutional scruples, traditional republican anxieties, and practical objections lingered among numerous Americans who considered its monetary policies either too lenient or too restrictive and its powers a potential threat to republican government.
Foremost among the doubters was Jackson. Having once been brought to the brink of insolvency by speculative adventures, Jackson became suspicious of all banks and their paper-money issues. His opposition to the national bank, therefore, was part of a broader antibanking and hard-money perspective. "I have been opposed always to the Bank of the U.S. as well as all state Banks of paper issues, upon constitutional ground," he insisted. He also suspected that the bank had intervened in local and national elections and thereby constituted a danger to free government. Thus, when preparing his first annual message, Jackson rejected pleas that he exclude reference to the bank, responding to one worried counselor, "Oh! My friend, I am pledged against the bank."
It is unlikely that Jackson thought in terms of the immediate destruction of the Bank of the United States. Rather, he intended to curb its abuses and explore possible alternatives. In his first message, he briefly observed that the bank's charter was scheduled to expire in 1836 and that its stockholders would probably apply for a renewal. Claiming that both the constitutionality and expediency of the bank were "well questioned by a large portion of our fellow-citizens" and that the bank had failed to establish a uniform and sound currency, he tentatively suggested that Congress consider substituting an institution more closely attached to the government. A year later, he reiterated his apprehensions about the "dangers" of the bank and elaborated on his proposal for a modified national bank that would be an adjunct of the Treasury.
Yet the pace of events remained like a minuet with both sides eyeing each other warily. Jackson's new cabinet, organized in the spring of 1831, contained two highly regarded figures, Louis McLane at the Treasury Department and Edward Livingston at the State Department, who sympathized with the bank. An all-out assault would doubtless have precipitated another cabinet crisis, something Jackson could ill afford. Perhaps, too, he preferred to delay further action until after the 1832 presidential election. Whatever his reasons, Jackson's third annual message, delivered in December 1831, was more modest than his earlier ones. While affirming his continued misgivings about the bank, he ambiguously left the whole subject "to the investigation of an enlightened people and their representatives."
Jackson's moderation troubled antibank Democrats. They need not have worried, for events favored their cause. In January 1832, Biddle, acting on the unfortunate advice of political friends, submitted to Congress a memorial for renewing the bank's charter. The timing was obviously calculated to make the bank a political issue. The National Republican party had nominated Clay as its presidential candidate in December 1831, and he was eager to test Jackson's strength on this very question. The bank's transparent political design further convinced Jackson that it was indeed a "monster" that threatened to corrupt the nation. As Roger Taney, Jackson's new attorney general, explained, the bank's application meant that "the Bank says to the President, your next election is at hand—if you charter us, well—if not, beware of your power."
The recharter bill passed the Senate on 11 June and the House on 3 July 1832. Jackson met it with a veto that pulsed with the language of Jacksonian democracy. It pronounced the institution a private and privileged corporation whose concentration of political and economic power promoted corruption and threatened liberty. Jackson scored the bank for its "exclusive privileges," claiming that most of its stock was held by foreigners and Americans "chiefly of the richest class." He accused it of operating inequitably, particularly against the West, and of "gross abuse" of its charter. Most especially he warned that the principles embodied in the bill contravened the basic principles of republican equality. Government, Jackson proclaimed, should confine itself "to equal protection, and, as Heaven does its rains, shower its favors alike on the high and the low, the rich and the poor." It should not add "artificial distinctions" to the inevitable natural and just differences among men and "make the rich richer and the potent more powerful."
Jackson's opponents assailed the veto as "the very slang of the leveller and demagogue." They had a point. Superficially, the message implied conflict between the rich and the poor. Yet its ideas were more complex. The veto did not call for the redistribution of wealth or for class war. Instead, it blended a progressive regard for equal opportunity and "competition," with the apprehension that special privilege and monopoly promoted corruption, concentration of power, and a dangerous degree of inequality. The bank veto appealed to concerns that were both contemporary and nostalgic, as Jackson tried to reconcile an expanding and increasingly market-oriented society, of which the bank was a key agent, with the Revolution's ideal of a virtuous republic.
Inevitably, the bank became the paramount issue in the 1832 presidential election. Illustrating the rapid development of party organization during this period, the Democratic party's first national convention met in Baltimore in May 1832 and nominated Jackson and Van Buren. Although it was more fully attended than its rivals', the Democratic meeting was not the first national political convention. The previous December, the National Republicans had assembled in Baltimore to select Clay and John Sergeant of Pennsylvania as their standard-bearers. Even earlier, in September 1831, the nation's first major third party, the Anti-Masons, convened in Baltimore. This party originated in upstate New York in 1826 when an itinerant stonemason named William Morgan disappeared after threatening to publish the secrets of Freemasonry. When local Masons obstructed the investigation into Morgan's kidnapping, a storm of grassroots protest erupted in western New York and spread throughout New England, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and other northern states. Anti-Masons soon organized politically and, inspired by moral and egalitarian ideals, advocated the eradication of the Masonic order as well as a variety of other reforms. Finding that the likely presidential contenders in 1832, Jackson and Clay, were both high-ranking Masons, Anti-Masonic leaders decided to nominate their own candidate. In September 1831, delegates from thirteen states nominated William Wirt of Maryland for president and Amos Ellmaker of Pennsylvania for vice president.
The two opposition parties proved no match against Jackson's popularity and his party's organizational efforts. During the campaign, special-edition newspapers, parades, barbecues, and rallies supplemented an extensive network of Hickory Clubs and state and local organizations. Jackson, while carefully avoiding overt efforts at soliciting votes, managed to make numerous public appearances when returning to Washington in the early fall from a summer stay in Tennessee. The campaign, therefore, advanced the movement toward a popular, voter-oriented style of politics.
Jackson won a smashing reelection victory. His estimated 55 percent of the popular vote and 219 electoral votes demonstrated his continued special appeal to the voters. In contrast, Clay received 37 percent of the popular vote and 49 electoral votes, while Wirt gained only 8 percent of the popular vote and 7 electoral votes. The Anti-Masonic party soon dissolved, its members being absorbed by both the Democratic party and the new Whig party. But there was no time to savor the triumph, for even as the results were recorded, Jackson's attention was primarily focused on South Carolina and the issue of nullification.