A taste of presidential censure Jackson: One of the nation's strongest presidents was the first to be censured by Congress -- a fate Bill Clinton could face.

Sun Journal

September 15, 1998|By Neil A. Grauer | Neil A. Grauer,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The worst congressional condemnation ever suffered by one of the nation's strongest presidents, Andrew Jackson, may now be the best that Bill Clinton can hope for: censure.

Yet in vehemently contesting Congress' right to censure him, Jackson and his close adviser, Maryland's Roger B. Taney, forcefully argued on behalf of a principle now firmly established in our system of government -- the role of the president as a representative of all the people and responsible to them, not to the Congress. Ours is not a parliamentary system in which a temporary loss of political favor within the legislature can lead to forced removal from office. Impeachment, Jackson and Taney argued, is the sole means by which a president can be condemned by Congress.

The Constitution contains no provision for congressional censure of the president. Jackson was the only chief executive in our history against whom such a censure resolution was passed -- in the Senate, not in the House of Representatives.

The circumstances under which this singular expression of legislative pique was enacted were in no way analogous to our present situation. It involved a solely political battle over an issue and institution now so remote and arcane that it is hard to appreciate the passions they once engendered.

The fight was over re-chartering the Second Bank of the United States, a private institution that had been created in 1816 and given special powers by Congress to oversee the stability of currency circulating in the country.

At the time, the federal government did not issue paper money. Individual banks printed bills that were "redeemable as specie," specie being gold or silver. The Bank of the United States, in which wealthy Easterners and even foreign interests held stock, successfully restricted the ability of the smaller state banks to extend credit to potentially risky enterprises by purchasing large amounts of their currency and then demanding redemption of it in gold and silver.

The bank maintained its banking monopoly in part by bribing politicians and buying up newspapers to support those office-holders who remained its friends. Sens. Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, ardent opponents of Jackson, worked privately as attorneys for the bank. Webster -- soon to be chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance -- even had the audacity to write to the bank's president, Nicholas Biddle, that his yearly "retainer" had not been "renewed or refreshed as usual. If it be wished that my relations to the Bank should be continued, it may be well to send me the usual retainers."

Jackson believed that the bank had become a danger to American democracy. The smaller banks and their clients -- chafing at the restrictions placed upon them by the Bank of the United States -- also opposed the unbridled, big-money power.

Seeing the renewal of the bank's charter, set to expire in 1836, as a potential issue with which to defeat Jackson's bid for re-election in 1832, his foes, including Clay and Webster, pushed through a bill to re-charter the bank.

Taney, then attorney general, wrote to Jackson that the early move to re-charter the Bank "means in plain English this -- the Bank says to the President, your next election is at hand -- if you charter us, well -- if not, beware of your power."

Risking the loss of crucial votes in Pennsylvania -- the bank's headquarters was in Philadelphia -- and in other states where major commercial interests were dependent on the bank, Jackson vetoed the re-charter bill. Nationwide, the voters supported him. Jackson soundly defeated Clay in the 1832 election.

Jackson then set about to guarantee the bank's demise. He ordered the transfer of the huge federal deposits in the Bank of the United States to smaller banks throughout the country. When his Treasury secretary, William J. Duane, refused to withdraw the federal funds from the bank -- and also refused to resign -- Jackson fired him, thereby setting the precedent that a president can unilaterally dismiss a member of his Cabinet.

Taney (whom Jackson eventually would make chief justice) took over as acting Treasury secretary and in 1833 began the systematic withdrawal of federal funds from the Bank of the United States. In a brutal power play to counter this loss of strength, the bank began calling in many of the debts other banks owed to it, restricted loans and tightened funds so severely that a national panic ensued. Industries slowed or stopped and thousands of people lost their jobs.

At the height of this panic, the Senate, controlled by Jackson's opponents, the Whigs, and with Clay and Webster leading the way, began debate on the constitutionality of the president's actions. On March 28, 1834, by a vote of 26 to 20, the Senate passed a resolution of censure against the president, proclaiming that "in the late executive proceedings in relation to the public revenue, [Jackson] has assumed upon himself authority and power not conferred by the Constitution and laws, but in derogation of both."

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