In light of the current bloodshed in the Middle East, it is difficult to characterize this earlier period in history as a ‘war’. It comes closer to construing the inherent properties of a battle. There were two opposing sides, and each waged a fierce struggle over who would be empowered to issue the fledgling nation’s money. No troops died, nor were any firearms discharged (other than those fired at President Jackson himself). While the case of the Second Bank of the United States versus the American people is properly designated as a battle, it unfolds neatly in the greater saga of a continuing cycle of such bank wars. The major actors in this national drama were: Andrew Jackson, the popular populist U.S. President who fought on behalf of the people, and Nicholas Biddle, president of the Second Bank of the United States, who fought in loyal support of the moneyed class that owned and controlled the monopolistic institution.
The war on the Bank was unusual in that there was virtually no earlier personal interaction between these two entities that would have indicated any such struggle lay ahead. At the time Andrew Jackson was inaugurated as the seventh President of the United States, he had already secured a reputation as a no-nonsense, tough, individualist. His nickname was “Old Hickory,” a reference to the toughest of the domestic hardwoods. His wife Rachel had died of a heart attack shortly before he was inaugurated into the Presidency in March of 1829. Jackson believed that the insults and personal attacks coming from bank-aligned John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay were responsible for her death. He had defended her honor throughout their marriage against repeated allegations that she was not yet divorced when she took on the role as Mrs. Jackson. Jackson had engaged in at least eight duels, even killing one man (Charles Dickinson) in defense of Rachel. He was critically wounded in several other duels and carried bullets from these encounters lodged in his body until his death.
Despite (or perhaps in part because of) all this, Jackson was elected to the Senate in 1823. Throughout his career and despite his perceived toughness Jackson built a loyal cadre of supporters both inside and outside the halls of power. After the election of 1828, Andrew Jackson and his Senate ally Richard Johnson began an investigation of the Second Bank of the United States. Branches of the Bank had been so brazen during the election that they refused loans to members of Jackson’s party. The Bank denied all allegations lodged against it. To Jackson however, the privately owned Bank of the United States held too much power and its well-compensated defenders could do nothing to persuade him otherwise. Although the bank’s charter wasn’t set to expire until 1836, Biddle decided to request that Congress renew it in 1832. Knowing that Jackson would surely veto the renewal, Biddle hoped this action would set off a tide of anger amongst wealthy Easterners and prepare the way for Jackson’s defeat in the next election. Henry Clay worked the Congress and the charter renewal was passed. When it came time for Jackson to veto the bill, he issued a veto message whose tone is well captured in this excerpt:
“It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes. Distinctions in society will always exist under every just government. Equality of talents, of education, or of wealth can not be produced by human institutions. In the full enjoyment of the gifts of Heaven and the fruits of superior industry, economy, and virtue, every man is equally entitled to protection by law; but when the laws undertake to add to these natural and just advantages artificial distinctions, to grant titles, gratuities, and exclusive privileges, to make the rich richer and the potent more powerful, the humble members of societythe farmers, mechanics, and laborers-who have neither the time nor the means of securing like favors to themselves, have a right to complain of the injustice of their Government.”
The anger of the Eastern establishment was nothing compared to the mass reaction that Jackson’s rhetoric inspired, and he easily rode this wave to victory in the election and war.