I contend that, politically speaking, Amos Kendall was one of our founding fathers. The fact that he was born a generation after the American revolution is irrelevant. This child of poor parents from Massachusetts, by dint of his intellectual brawn, guile and his drive to succeed, reshaped the political landscape in America and he helped create the Democratic Party in his own image. He is mostly forgotten today in part because, for the next one hundred years, his sins became the Democratic Party’s sins. He was a partisan in the extreme and his politics were always personal. He never forgot and he never forgave. He served two presidents, and one of his enemies, President John Quincy Adams, said that those two chief executives were merely, “…the tools of Amos Kendall, the ruling mind of their dominion.”
Amos was tall, thin, asthmatic and prematurely white haired. His photos remind me of a vulture, for some reason. He was also a puritanical workaholic and a hypochondriac with such a talent for venom that he carried a pistol for protection; although he was so nearsighted it is unlikely he could have hit anything. In the election of 1828 it was Amos’s talent for invective which made Andrew Jackson President.
Amos, working under the guiding hand of campaign manager Martin Van Buren, eviscerated the incumbent, John Quincy Adams (above), day after day on the pages of his newspaper, “The Argus of Western America.” According to Amos, Adams was effete and too European. (Sound familiar?) Adams had permitted the rape of an American servant girl by the Russian Czar (a complete fabrication). He was living lavishly while average Americans suffered (a gross exaggeration). Adams had even, charged Amos, brought gambling into the White House. (Adams had bought a pool table and a chess set). Thanks in large part to Amos’ constant attacks, Jackson easily won the election. And when Jackson moved into the White House, Amos came with him.
Officially, Amos was given a vague job in the Treasury Department. But it was just a cover for his real career in Washington. According to Virginia Whig Henry Wise, Amos was…”the President’s thinking machine and writing machine and his lying machine… Nothing was well done without him”. English journalist Harriet Martubeau, while visiting the United States in 1834, noted, “I was fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of the invincible Amos Kendall, one of the most remarkable men in America. He is supposed to be the moving spring of the administration; the thinker, planner, and doer, but it is all in the dark.” And Virginia Democrat Colonel Augustine Clairborn described Amos as a “…little whippet of a man” who was “...the Atlas that bore on his shoulders the weight of Jackson's administration. He originated, or was consulted in advance, upon every great measure.”
Before Jackson (above), a President would look to his cabinet for advice. But cabinet members had to be approved by the Senate, and often saw themselves as the President’s heirs, if not future competitors. And Jackson did not intend on taking any advice from either his opponents or his competitors. This produced a situation in which, wrote Nicholas Biddle, “The kitchen predominates over the parlor”. There was bitterness in that description, since Jackson and Amos were intent upon dismantling the Bank of the United States and firing its president, who happened to be Mr. Biddle. And they succeeded. But, whatever the spirit, Amos was a member of the original “Kitchen Cabinet”, “the common reservoir of all the petty slanders which find a place in the most degraded prints in the Union”, according to Mississippi Whig George Poindexter.
During Jackson’s second term Amos was appointed the Postmaster General, and proceeded to empty the bureaucracy of every Wig sympathizer, replacing them with reliable Democrats. In addition, every Wig contractor had their mail contracts cancelled, unless they hired only Democrats (duplicated in Republican Tom Delay's 2000-2004 K Street Project). Amos had thus created the “Spoils System”. This politicizing of entire departments of government was justified by New York Democratic Senator William Learned Macy, this way; “If (a politician is) defeated, they expect to retire from office. If they are successful, they claim, as a matter of right, the advantages of success. They see nothing wrong in the rule that to the victor belong the spoils of the enemy.” President Jackson himself argued, “In a country where offices are created solely for the benefit of the people, no one man has any more intrinsic right to official station than another.” The President innocuously described this conversion of government into plunder merely as the “rotation in office”. But the brain behind the argument was Amos Kendall, and there was nothing innocuous about Amos' thinking.
It was Amos who ran Martin Van Buren’s (above) successful Presidential campaign in 1836. And when the “Little Magician” took the oath of office in March of 1837, it looked as if the Democrats would rule Washington permanently. But the destruction of the Bank of the United States came back to bite the Jackson Democrats.
During the first three weeks of April 1837, 150 businesses failed in New York City alone, wiping out $100 million in wealth. By the end of that summer unemployment nationwide had topped 10%, and mobs were raiding food warehouses. Van Buren’s only response to the “Panic of 1837” was to cut government expenditures, so tightly that they even sold the tools used to construct roads and bridges. As Republicans today might note, this action only deepened the depression, and insured that in 1840 the Whigs elected William Henry Harrison President.
Amos tried to go back to running newspapers. But the economic depression inspired at least in part by the Democratic economic policies, had become too deep. His publishing ventures failed. Then, in 1845, Amos became Samuel F. B. Morse’s business manager. He helped Morse create and run the International Telegraph Company (it would later become International Telephone and Telegraph). This venture finally made Amos a wealthy man. He retired in 1860. But that did not last for long.
While Amos had been running the Post Office, he had decreed that local postmasters could refused any mail which they deemed to be either abolitionist or pro-slavery. That was a purely political decision, made because the Democrats in the 1830’s were pursuing a “Southern Strategy”, which sought to shore up their base of support in the South. The postmaster's decision was just one of the myriad of compromises which brought on the American Civil War, and certainly not the most important one. Still, it must be counted against Amos that while he never owned slaves, he did nothing to encourage slavery’s demise, when he had the chance to. It is to Amos’s credit that, when the war finally came, he publicly supported the Union cause, which, for a Democrat who was unending in his criticism of the Lincoln administration, was not an easy thing to do.
The amazing Amos Kendall died on November 12, 1869, at sixty years of age. An obituary writer tried to explain his extraordinary career by listing his fields of endeavor. Amos had been “a newspaper editor, party organizer, political propagandist, postmaster general, telegraph builder, and promoter of language for the deaf.” Amos had helped found, and had left most of his fortune to, Gallaudet University, the unofficial national school for the deaf. And that is to his credit as well. And while the Democratic Party that he founded has changed so much in the last 150 years as to be all but unrecognizable, still, he was a midwife at its birth, and that deserves to figured toward his credit, as well.