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Sunday, June 09, 2013

1828 - DEAL WITH THE DEVIL


I know we like to think our nation was founded by political geniuses armed only with the best of intentions. But the truth is, if the vast majority of the founding fathers were to somehow magically reappear in today's political arena, they would probably be most comfortable as members of the Klu Klux Klan – being by current definition both sexists and white supremacists. Under the first constitution for South Carolina (signed in 1778) Catholics were not allowed to vote. Delaware's first constitution denied the vote to Jews, and Maryland did not permit the sons of Abraham to cast a ballot until 1828. And, of course, women and both sexes of African-American descent either were or would shortly be arrested if they tried to cast a ballot anywhere in America. But the most fundamental bigotry in America was and is not racial or religious. It is monetary. The most hated, despised and disenfranchised group in America has always been anyone who was “not rich”.
In ten of the 13 original United States you had to own at least 50 acres of land or $250 in property before you were judged qualified to vote. The official price for uncleared land along the frontier was set at just ten cents an acre, but usually sold in lots no smaller than a section of 640 acres. At the same time the average yearly income for a laborer was about ninety dollars (with the income level in slave states being even lower), meaning a section would cost a middle class worker over 8 months salary. Few working people could afford the investment. So the land speculators stepped in. They had the cash, or the credit, to acquire hundreds of sections of land at a time, survey, subdivide and resell the property in plots down to five or ten acres each. It was a system rife with legal and illegal fraud. And the speculators' profit margins tripled or quadrupled the price per acre to the yeoman farmers who usually borrowed to buy the land, often then went bankrupt, lost their investment, and were forced to move even further west to try again, still without the right to vote the legality of such monetary rules.
This explains why, forty years after the revolution, only half a million out of the ten million Americans could qualify to vote, and why in 1824 less than 360,000 actually cast a ballot. The debacle of 1825, when the “corrupt bargain” was seen as reducing political office to a commodity, and the earlier similar debacle in 1800, led to the realization that the first objective of fair elections must be to keep the professional politicians from screwing them up and dictating the outcome. That was why, beginning in the new states beyond the Appalachian crest, the wealth restrictions on voting were dropped. And slowly this influenced the politics back in the original 13 colonies. Slowly.
On October 7, 1825, with John Quincy Adams ensconced in the White House for less than 8 months, Senator Andrew Jackson (above) rose in the Senate chamber. Nominally he was to comment on a proposed constitutional amendment to prevent another “corrupt bargain” from ever happening But, “I could not”, Jackson assured his fellow politicians, “consent either to urge or to encourage a change which might wear the appearance of being ...a desire to advance my own views” (He meant unlike Henry Clay, and President Adams, of course.) And reluctantly he added, “I hasten therefore to tender this my resignation.” It wasn't that Jackson was clearing his schedule for the upcoming 1828 rematch . No, he was resigning so “my friends do not, and my enemies can not, charge me with...degrading the trust reposed in me by intriguing for the Presidential chair.” As he walked out of the Capital that afternoon, it's a wonder his trousers did not burst into flames. The proposed amendment was then quietly allowed to die.
On the same day, on the west fork of the Stones river, meeting in St. Paul's Episcopal Church on East Vine Street in Murfreesboro, Tennessee (where their capital had burned down two years earlier), the state legislature unanimously nominated Andrew Jackson to be the next President of the United States – three years hence. What a happy coincidence of timing, with those two events occurring over a thousand miles apart, and on the same day – proof positive that no one could accuse Andrew “Jackass” of “intriguing” to ride the wave of populism about to break over the electoral college. And if any of you reading this are offended by modern pundits theorizing about the next election almost before the last one is completed, welcome to the brave new world of 1825
Of course, if you were looking for more hard evidence of intrigue you might journey to the 9th Congressional District of Virginia, tucked away in the south-western corner of the Old Dominion. The two term representative for this last gasp of the Shenandoah Valley and its encroaching mountains was a transplanted Pennsylvanian, a graduate of William and Mary, and a Crawford-Republican named Andrew Stevenson (above). Like many converts, the dapper Stevenson was heavily financially and emotionally invested in the peculiar institution of slavery, and savvy about the politics of his adopted state. He had been the Speaker of the House of Burgess, where he was considered a member of the “Richmond Junta” which ran Virginia politics. So why would a member of the Richmond Junta decide to join forces with a Yankee from the Albany Regency, to support Andrew Jackson from Nashville, Tennessee, for President?
First, the south had something that New Yorker Martin Van Buren (above) wanted – electoral votes. The institution of slavery was indeed peculiar because although those humans treated as property had no rights, each slave did count as 3/5ths of a person for determining congressional districts and electoral votes. After the census of 1820 this gave the south 22 additional congressional districts – and 22 additional electoral votes – which their white population alone did not entitle them too. This was the deal with Satan the founding fathers from New England had been forced to make in order to form a “more perfect union.” Those 22 electoral votes were more than enough to throw a close election in whatever direction Van Buren wanted.
What Stevenson and other Southerners wanted was a guarantee that the economy of the south would be protected from the growing power of the North.  Practically, this meant low tariffs. The slave states produced few of the machines that were increasingly vital to modern life,  largely because slaves were never  allowed to share in their master's profits, and thus had no incentive to invent or invest of themselves more than was required. Meanwhile, a little over two weeks after Jackson's resignation from the Senate, the Erie Canal officially opened, connecting the produce of  Ohio to the markets of New York City. It was visible evidence of the economic giant the workers and consumers of the "Free States" were becoming.  But in a nation without an income or a sales tax, a tax levied on imported goods, or a tariff, was the only way to support projects like the canal, or the national highway..
The Bank of the United States was a vital part of the infrastructure which John Quincy Adams was advocating. He believed projects such as the National Road and canals connecting the great lakes with the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, would unite the nation both physically and economically. What Adams saw was government preforming the unprofitable investment in infrastructure so that business could use it as a base for their future profits. But Stevenson and his ilk saw “Big Government”, supported by tariffs, as a multi-head snake (above) designed primarily to choke off the South -  and thus a threat to slavery. And they were both right.
In 1831 (six years hence) a young French official, Alexis de Tocqueville, journeyed to America to observe the young nation's institutions and people. And in perhaps his most famous passage he touched upon this central issue. “The State of Ohio”, wrote de Tocquville,”is separated from Kentucky just by one river; on either side of it the soil is equally fertile, and the situation equally favorable, and yet everything is different...(In Ohio the population is) devoured by feverish activity, trying every means to make its fortune...There (in Kentucky) are people who make others work for them...a people without energy, mettle or the spirit of enterprise...These differences cannot be attributed to any other cause but slavery. It degrades the black population and... (saps the energy of) the white.”
So, a hundred years before the Republican Party adopted its infamous “Southern strategy” to convert segregationist “boil weevel” Democrats into a southern Republican block. But Northern Democrats, at very the moment of their party's birth, made a much more disgusting bargain – agreeing to protect real slavery in all its foul existence,  in exchange for gaining national power.
Jackson was a slave owner, and his natural inclination would be to support slavery. He was opposed to the national bank, and Adam's program of “big government” investments. But was that because he saw them as a threat to the South, or because he saw Adams as cheating him out of the White House, and they were Adam's policies? Whatever his priorities it is clear Jackson had no interest in the details of forming a political party. His only interest was in winning over those who “cheated” him. Forming the party that would carry him to victory could be left to his loyal followers, men like Van Buren and Stevenson, who were binding North and South together, Southern slave owning ruling elite to Northern entrepreneurial ruling elite. That accommodation would be the foundation of the new Democratic Party.
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