For President Jackson, a Question of States' Rights
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Welcome to THE MAKING OF A NATION – American history in VOA Special English.
In our last few programs, we described the presidential election campaign of 1828. It split the old Republican Party of Thomas Jefferson into two hostile groups: the National Republicans of John Quincy Adams and the Democrats of Andrew Jackson. The election of Jackson deepened the split. It became more serious as a new dispute arose over import taxes.
This week in our series, Maurice Joyce and Stewart Spencer continue the story of Andrew Jackson's presidency.
Congress passed a bill in 1828 that put high taxes on a number of imported products. The purpose of the import tax was to protect American industries from foreign competition. The South opposed the tax, because it had no industry to protect. Its chief product was cotton, which was exported to Europe.
The American import taxes forced European nations to put taxes on American cotton. This meant a drop in the sale of cotton and less money for the planters of the South. It also meant higher prices in the American market for manufactured goods.
South Carolina refused to pay the import tax. It said the tax was not constitutional, that the constitution did not give the federal government the power to order a protective tax.
At one time, the vice president of the United States -- John C. Calhoun of South Carolina -- had believed in a strong central government. But he had become a strong supporter of states' rights.
Calhoun wrote a long statement against the import tax for the South Carolina legislature. In it, he developed the idea of nullification -- cancelling federal powers. He said the states had created the federal government and, therefore, the states had the greater power. He argued that the states could reject, or nullify, any act of the central government which was not constitutional. And, Calhoun said, the states should be the judge of whether an act was constitutional or not.
Calhoun's idea was debated in the Senate by Robert Hayne of South Carolina and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts. Hayne supported nullification, and Webster opposed it. Webster said Hayne was wrong in using the words "liberty first, and union afterwards." He said they could not be separated. Said Webster: "Liberty and union, now and forever, one and inseparable."
No one really knew how President Andrew Jackson felt about nullification. He made no public statement during the debate. Leaders in South Carolina developed a plan to get the president's support. They decided to hold a big dinner honoring the memory of Thomas Jefferson. Jackson agreed to be at the dinner.
The speeches were carefully planned. They began by praising the democratic ideas of Jefferson. Then speakers discussed Virginia's opposition to the alien and sedition laws passed by the federal government in seventeen-ninety-eight.
Next they discussed South Carolina's opposition to the import tax. Finally, the speeches were finished. It was time for toasts. President Jackson made the first one. He stood up, raised his glass, and looked straight at John C. Calhoun. He waited for the cheering to stop. "Our union," he said, "it must be preserved."
Calhoun rose with the others to drink the toast. He had not expected Jackson's opposition to nullification. His hand shook, and he spilled some of the wine from his glass.
Calhoun was called on to make the next toast. The vice president rose slowly. "The union," he said, "next to our liberty, most dear." He waited a moment, then, continued. "May we all remember that it can only be preserved by respecting the rights of the states and by giving equally the benefits and burdens of the union."
President Jackson left a few minutes later. Most of those at dinner left with him.
The nation now knew how the president felt. And the people were with him -- opposed to nullification. But the idea was not dead among the extremists of South Carolina. They were to start more trouble two years later.
Calhoun's nullification doctrine was not the only thing that divided Jackson and the vice president. Calhoun had led a campaign against the wife of Jackson's friend and secretary of war, John Eaton.
Three members of Jackson's cabinet supported Calhoun. Mr. Calhoun and the three cabinet wives would have nothing to do with Mr. Eaton. Jackson saw this as a political trick to try to force Eaton from the cabinet, and make Jackson look foolish at the same time.
The hostility between Jackson and his vice president was sharpened by a letter that was written by a member of President Monroe's cabinet. It told how Calhoun wanted Jackson arrested in 1818.
The letter writer, William Crawford, was in the cabinet with Calhoun. Jackson had led a military campaign into Spanish Florida and had hanged two British citizens. Calhoun proposed during a cabinet meeting that Jackson be punished. Jackson did not learn of this until 1829. Jackson wanted no further communications with Calhoun.
Several attempts were made to soften relations between Calhoun and Jackson. One of them seemed to succeed. Jackson told Secretary of State Martin Van Buren that the dispute had been settled. He said the unfriendly letters that he and Calhoun sent each other would be destroyed. And he said he would invite the vice president to have dinner with him at the White House.
With the dispute ended, Calhoun thought he saw a way to destroy his rival for the presidency -- Secretary of State Martin Van Buren. He decided not to destroy the letters he and Jackson sent to each other. Instead, he had a pamphlet written, using the letters. The pamphlet also contained the statement of several persons denying the Crawford charges. And, it accused Mr. Van Buren of using Crawford to try to split Jackson and Calhoun.
One of Calhoun's men took a copy of the pamphlet to Secretary Eaton and asked him to show it to President Jackson. He told Eaton that the pamphlet would not be published without Jackson's approval. Eaton did not show the pamphlet to Jackson and said nothing to Calhoun's men. Calhoun understood this silence to mean that Jackson did not object to the pamphlet. So he had it published and given to the public.
Jackson exploded when he read it. Not only had Calhoun failed to destroy the letters, he had published them. Jackson's newspaper, the Washington Globe, accused Calhoun of throwing a firebomb into the party.
Jackson declared that Calhoun and his supporters had cut their own throats. Only later did Calhoun discover what had gone wrong. Eaton had not shown the pamphlet to Jackson. He had not even spoken to the president about it. This was Eaton's way of punishing those who treated his wife so badly.
Jackson continued to defend Margaret Eaton's honor. He even held a cabinet meeting on the subject. All the secretaries but John Eaton were there.
Jackson told them that he did not want to interfere in their private lives. But, he said it seemed that their families were trying to get others to have nothing to do with Mr. Eaton. "I will not part with John Eaton," Jackson said. "And those of my cabinet who cannot harmonize with him had better withdraw. I must and I will have harmony." Jackson said any insult to Eaton would be an insult to himself. Either work with Eaton or resign. There were no resignations.
But the problem got no better. Many people just would not accept Margaret Eaton as their social equal. Mr. Van Buren saw that the problem was hurting Jackson deeply. But he knew better than to propose to Jackson that he ask for Secretary Eaton's resignation. He already had heard Jackson say that he would resign as president before he would desert his friend Eaton.
Our program was written by Frank Beardsley. The narrators were Maurice Joyce and Stewart Spencer. Next week, we discuss Martin Van Buren's plan to solve the dispute between Andrew Jackson and John C. Calhoun. Transcripts, MP3s and podcasts of our programs can be found, along with historical images, at voaspecialenglish.com.
Join us again next week for THE MAKING OF A NATION - an American history series in VOA Special English.