Front Page Titles (by Subject) LETTER XVI.: GENERAL JACKSON. - Society, Manners and Politics in the United States
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LETTER XVI.: GENERAL JACKSON. - Michel Chevalier, Society, Manners and Politics in the United States 
Society, Manners and Politics in the United States: Being a Series of Letters on North America, translated from the third Paris edition (Boston: Weeks, Jordan & Co., 1839).
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Louisville, (Ky.), December 15, 1834.
You must have been astonished in France at the President’s Message; here the sharp and reckless tone of a portion of the press had prepared the public mind for some energetic demonstration; but the Message has exceeded the hopes of those who wished to assume an attitude of defiance in regard to France, and the fears of those who dreaded some imprudent step. Had such a paper come from any former President,—from Washington to John Quincy Adams,—it would have been looked upon as an expression of the sentiments of a majority of the American people. Neither of them would have been willing thus to commit the United States. without being sure that the national will really required it. Their rule of action would have been to let themselves be pushed on by the nation, rather than to draw it after them, or to go beyond it; and this, in fact, is more conformable to notions of self-government. They would have had the question profoundly discussed by the cabinet, not only orally, but in writing, as Washington did at the time of the establishment of the first bank in 1791. They would have consulted individually some of the leading statesmen of the country of all parties and all interests. They would have listened patiently to the representations of those upon whom the heavy burden of war would have most directly fallen, the merchants of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Charleston. New Orleans, and other large ports; and finally, after having weighed all objections, measured all difficulties, if they had been convinced that the interest and honour of their country absolutely required the appeal to the last argument, they would have reluctantly addressed the challenge to their oldest ally and friend, to the firmest stay of liberty and improvement in the Old World.
General Jackson has changed all this; the rules of conduct and the policy of his administration are no longer those adopted by the wisdom of his predecessors. Some may maintain that this change is for the better; on this point, the future, and no distant future, will decide; but the fact of a change is undeniable. General Jackson possesses in the highest degree the qualities necessary for conducting a partisan warfare. Bold, indefatigable, vigilant, quick-sighted, with an iron will and a frame of adamant, devoted to his friends, harsh and terrible to his enemies, making light of obstacles, passionately fond of danger, his campaigns against the Creeks and Seminoles were marked by the most brilliant success, and his resistance to the English army under Packenham, at New Orleans, was heroic. By these exploits and the enthusiasm which military services excite in all countries, General Jackson found himself the most popular man in the Union, when the founders of the national independence disappeared, and naturally became the candidate for the presidential chair. Objections were made to his unbending temper, the impatience of contradiction which he had shown throughout his whole career, his obstinacy in following his own impulses, in spite of the provisions of the laws, and his disposition to use the sword of Alexander, rather than to conform himself to the delays of constitutional forms. His natural propensities, strengthened by the habits of military command, and by the peculiarities of that kind of warfare in which he had been engaged, must, it was urged, have become ungovernable; and it would be impossible for him to acquire that moderation, which is necessary in the exercise of civil authority. It was predicted that in politics, as in war, he would be zealous for his friends, implacable towards his adversaries, violent against whoever should attempt to check his course; that, instead of being above party-quarrels, he would come down into the arena in person. His arrest of a judge in New Orleans, the execution of the militia men, and of the two Englishmen, Arbuthnot and Ambristier, his invasion and conquest of Florida in time of peace, his anger and threats when Congress was deliberating upon charges founded on these summary acts, were all dwelt upon.
But his chivalric character, his lofty integrity, and ardent patriotism, seemed sufficient guarantees for his conduct, and from reasons of domestic policy, which it would take too much time to explain, many enlightened men, who had at first treated the idea of supporting him for the presidency with ridicule, gave into the plan, trusting that they should be able to exercise a salutary influence over him. His fiery temper seemed in fact to be calmed by his elevation; the recollection of his professions, which, at the moment they were made, were made in good faith, was yet fresh; he had conscientiously resolved to observe the principles consecrated by Washington, Jefferson, and and the other patriarchs of America, to keep himself scrupulously within the narrow limits of prerogative, as he had traced them or allowed them to be traced out for him; to follow the current of public opinion, without seeking to bar its course or divert it from its regular channels; to be moderate, patient, and calm. During his first term, he continued pretty faithful to his resolution, to his professed principles, and to the advice of those who raised him to his seat. But this state of constraint was insupportable to him; it is too late to reform at the age of sixty years.
Besides, it is not all temperaments, or, I should rather say, the distinctive qualities of all men, that can adapt themselves to that high sphere of serenity, in which he who governs others should move. Such a conformity was even more difficult for General Jackson than for any other man; the turbulence and impetuosity of youth had not been tempered in him either by age or by the fatigues of war. And in a country where universal suffrage prevails, political disputes are of a character to exhaust the patience of an angel. Step by step, then, the stormy propensities of the Tennessee planter were seen returning. The character of the bold, daring, restless, obstinate, fiery, indomitable partisan chief, of the conqueror of the Creeks and Seminoles, gradually broke through the veil of reserve, caution, gravity, and universal good-will which had covered it, and tore in pieces the constitutional mantle in which his friends had taken so much pains to wrap him.
At length, in 1832, South Carolina furnished a natural occasion for giving the rein to his warlike propensities, which had now been curbed for four years. That State had, on its own individual authority, declared the tariff act of Congress null and void, and had armed its militia to sustain its nullification Ordinance. The President immediately began preparations for war, retaining, however, the language of moderation, and obtained an act of Congress (the Force Bill) authorising him to employ all means to maintain the laws of the United States; when this storm was laid (see Note 5), General Jackson was proclaimed the saviour of the Constitution; and perhaps sufficient care was not taken to prevent a very natural mistake of an old soldier, and to make him sensible that the congratulations of a grateful people were addressed less to his warlike attitude, than to the pacific measures taken under his auspices. In the heat of debate and the shout of acclamation that followed the restoration of order, the old military leaven began to ferment in the President’s heart, and without a pause, he rushed into a vigourous campaign against the Bank. This was a war almost without provocation, certainly without a just cause, and for some time it appeared that the General would be worsted. But he held his own, and neither bent nor broke. In this affair he was the same Old Hickory that the Indians had found always and everywhere on their trail, whom they could neither tire nor surprise, and upon whom they could get no hold, either by force or fraud. The last elections of Representatives assure him the victory, and the Bank is condemned to the fate of the Creeks and Seminoles, of Mr Clay and Mr Calhoun, of the Spanish government of Florida, and of the English General Packenham (see Note 19 .)
The intoxication of success seems to have restored all the fire of his youth, and at an age when other men look only towards repose, he requires new perils and new fatigues. Last winter, Mr Clay declared in the Senate, that, if phrenology were a true science, President Jackson must certainly have the bump of combativeness, for his life had been nothing but the perpetual exercise of that appetite; at fourteen years of age, against the English, then against his neighbours the first settlers of Tennessee, not a very tractable race, and who handled the knife, the sword, the pistol, and the rifle, with as much promptness as himself; next against the Indians, the English, the Indians again, and the inoffensive Spaniards; then against Mr Clay, Mr Calhoun, and South Carolina, and finally, for want of other adversaries, he was engaged in a bout with the Bank. The General seems, in fact, to be possessed with the demon of war; for no sooner had he put his foot on the throat of the Bank, than he required a new enemy, and finding in America none but vanquished adversaries, or objects unworthy of his anger, he flings down the glove to France. Thus far the defiance thrown out to France is merely the expression of General Jackson’s humour. But, unluckily, this act of an individual emanates from a man who is President of the United States until the 4th of March, 1837, and who is even more pertinacious in his enmities than in his friendships. Unluckily too, the defiance has been inserted in a solemn document, which is looked upon in Europe as the faithful exhibition of the sentiments of the American people. And finally, the man who has set the United States in this posture, has just made an experiment which shows the degree to which he can lead the people to espouse his personal quarrels.
His tactics in politics, as well as in war, is to throw himself forward with the cry of, comrades, follow me! and this bold stroke has succeeded admirably in the case of the Bank. If he had recommended to Congress to withdraw the public deposites from that institution, he would certainly have failed; Congress would have declared against it. He, therefore, boldly took the first step himself, and ordered the removal, in opposition to the advice of the majority of his cabinet, two months before the meeting of Congress, without the slightest possible pretence of the urgency of the measure. I will take the responsibility, he said. The Secretary of the Treasury refused to execute the order, because he considered it a fatal abuse of power, and he was dismissed. The majority of the House of Representatives, and in the last elections, of the people, have sanctioned those dictatorial acts. General Jackson has, indeed, lost most of his friends in the enlightened classes and among the merchants, but he cares little for individuals, however distinguished; by virtue of universal suffrage, it is numbers that rule here.
Will the bold policy by which he carried the multitude against the Bank, be as successful now that he attempts to edge them on against France? It may be compared to one of those feats of strength, in which one may succeed the first and even the second time, but will break his back the third. General Jackson may be considered to possess that sort of popularity which is irresistible for a short time; but the duration and solidity of which are in the inverse ratio of its intensity and brilliancy; this, however, is a mere conjecture. One thing is certain, that the General has the majority in the House of Representatives, and from what is known of the composition of the next Congress, there is every appearance that he will keep it during the term of his Presidency; whilst the Opposition, which now has the majority in the Senate, may lose it after the present session. Besides, it is not plain to me, that the Opposition will be unanimous in censuring the measures of General Jackson in regard to France. The opponents of General Jackson, as well as his friends, are obliged to court their common sovereign, the people. Now in all countries the multitude are very far from being cosmopolites; their patriotism is more lively and warm, but it is also more brutal, more unjust, and more arrogant, than that of the higher classes. In France, they cry with enthusiasm, Our country before all things! Here the word is, Our country, right or wrong! which is the perfection of national selfishness.
As General Jackson is not, however, a madman or a fool, it is difficult to imagine, that he wishes the United States to pass at once from a close friendship to a state of hostility with France. If he thinks that France has exceeded all reasonable bounds of delay, that she has exhausted all the patience she had a right to expect from an old ally, from a nation whose independence was bought with our blood and our treasure, why is he not content with proposing measures of commercial restriction? A duty upon our goods would also be a means of paying the twentyfive millions. He knows, that, if France has more to lose than the United States in a war of tariffs, the United States, whose commerce and navigation are much more extensive than ours, have more to lose in a war of cannon, of which the sea would naturally be the theatre. But which class in the United States will suffer most by a war? The commercial, certainly. Who own the vessels and the goods? Oh! the merchants and shipowners who vote against the General and his friends, his adversaries whom he detests and despises; the traders of Boston, who beheaded his statue on the bows of the Constitution frigate; those of New York, who have had caricature medals struck at Birmingham, holding up his government to hatred and contempt; the capitalists of Philadelphia, friends of Mr Biddle and admirers of Mr Clay. General Jackson troubles himself very little about the interest of such fellows as these.
On the contrary, an increase of the customs duties, whatever should be the motive of it, would be particularly hurtful to the Southern States, and would be very unwelcome to them. As it is the South that produces cotton, the principal article of export from the United States to France, the reprisals which the French government would not fail to make, would fall chiefly upon the South. Now the democratic party at present needs the support of the South, and is courting Virginia in particular, the most influential of the Southern States. The success of the plans of the democratic party, that is to say, the election of Mr Van Buren to the presidency, depends much upon the attitude taken by Virginia, not in 1836, the year of the election, but the present year, not tomorrow but to-day. Public opinion is yet undecided in Virginia; it is desirable, at any price, to prevent it from leaning in any degree to the side of the Opposition, and it is well understood that Virginia will not consent to laying any especial burdens on the South. The Virginia legislature is now in session, and one of its first acts will be the choice of a Senator in Congress. If Mr Leigh, the present Senator, is chosen, then it will be committed in favour of the Opposition, and perhaps lost to the democratic party. The loss of the legislature may involve that of the State; the loss of Virginia may involve that of the South. Considerations of this kind have much more weight here than would be imagined in Europe. In the midst of the changing instistitutions of this country, politicians live only from hand to mouth.
It sometimes happens that European governments are clogged in their foreign policy by domestic difficulties. General Jackson would have been more cautious, if he had not thought that such is the position of the French government at this moment. But be assured, that he also has his domestic embarrassments, which affect his measures. This is more peculiarly the case with him than with any other President, because he is more a man of party, more entangled in party meshes, than any of his predecessors. Congressional intrigues and sectional interests create the same difficulties here, particularly for an administration like his, which amongst us result from an ill-balanced population, and the burden of the past. The French government may be confident of this, and ought to act conformably.
[Note 19—page 180.]Omitted.