Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Andrew Jackson's Farewell Address

There's a little collection of primary writings called Reading the American Past that was bundled with the textbook College of Western Idaho uses for U.S. History.  I inflict a weekly writing assignment on my students, often based on one or more of those primary sources.   This week:

Document 11-2 in Reading the American Past is an excerpt from President Andrew Jackson's farewell address to the nation. Read through it: what parallels do you see between his concerns and concerns of Americans today? Which political party today seems most in agreement with Jackson on these concerns? Which political party today claims Andrew Jackson as one of its founders?
Fortunately, the entire text of Jackson's farewell address is also available on the web, and parts of it are well worth reading today, as much as a crackpot as Jackson was about the 2nd Bank of the United States:
It is well known that there have always been those amongst us who wish to enlarge the powers of the General Government, and experience would seem to indicate that there is a tendency on the part of this Government to overstep the boundaries marked out for it by the Constitution. Its legitimate authority is abundantly sufficient for all the purposes for which it was created, and its powers being expressly enumerated, there can be no justification for claiming anything beyond them. Every attempt to exercise power beyond these limits should be promptly and firmly opposed, for one evil example will lead to other measures still more mischievous; and if the principle of constructive powers or supposed advantages or temporary circumstances shall ever be permitted to justify the assumption of a power not given by the Constitution, the General Government will before long absorb all the powers of legislation, and you will have in effect but one consolidated government. From the extent of our country, its diversified interests, different pursuits, and different habits, it is too obvious for argument that a single consolidated government would be wholly inadequate to watch over and protect its interests; and every friend of our free institutions should be always prepared to maintain unimpaired and in full vigor the rights and sovereignty of the States and to confine the action of the General Government strictly to the sphere of its appropriate duties.
 Which political party claims this guy as one of their founders, again?
There is, perhaps, no one of the powers conferred on the Federal Government so liable to abuse as the taxing power. The most productive and convenient sources of revenue were necessarily given to it, that it might be able to perform the important duties imposed upon it; and the taxes which it lays upon commerce being concealed from the real payer in the price of the article, they do not so readily attract the attention of the people as smaller sums demanded from them directly by the taxgatherer. But the tax imposed on goods enhances by so much the price of the commodity to the consumer, and as many of these duties are imposed on articles of necessity which are daily used by the great body of the people, the money raised by these imposts is drawn from their pockets. Congress has no right under the Constitution to take money from the people unless it is required to execute some one of the specific powers intrusted to the Government; and if they raise more than is necessary for such purposes, it is an abuse of the power of taxation, and unjust and oppressive. It may indeed happen that the revenue will sometimes exceed the amount anticipated when the taxes were laid. When, however, this is ascertained, it is easy to reduce them, and in such a case it is unquestionably the duty of the Government to reduce them, for no circumstances can justify it in assuming a power not given to it by the Constitution nor in taking away the money of the people when it is not needed for the legitimate wants of the Government. 
Did Jackson's party lose the plot, somewhere along these last two centuries?
Plain as these principles appear to be, you will yet find there is a constant effort to induce the General Government to go beyond the limits of its taxing power and to impose unnecessary burdens upon the people. Many powerful interests are continually at work to procure heavy duties on commerce and to swell the revenue beyond the real necessities of the public service, and the country has already felt the injurious effects of their combined influence. They succeeded in obtaining a tariff of duties bearing most oppressively on the agricultural and laboring classes of society and producing a revenue that could not be usefully employed within the range of the powers conferred upon Congress, and in order to fasten upon the people this unjust and unequal system of taxation extravagant schemes of internal improvement were got up in various quarters to squander the money and to purchase support. Thus one unconstitutional measure was intended to be upheld by another, and the abuse of the power of taxation was to be maintained by usurping the power of expending the money in internal improvements.
All those shovel-ready bridges to nowhere, I guess.
The result of this decision has been felt in the rapid extinguishment of the public debt and the large accumulation of a surplus in the Treasury, notwithstanding the tariff was reduced and is now very far below the amount originally contemplated by its advocates. But, rely upon it, the design to collect an extravagant revenue and to burden you with taxes beyond the economical wants of the Government is not yet abandoned. The various interests which have combined together to impose a heavy tariff and to produce an overflowing Treasury are too strong and have too much at stake to surrender the contest.
Well, that certainly has changed!  There is little risk that any political party is to going to give us "rapid extinguishment of the public debt" and accumulation of a surplus in the Treasury.  Instead, we get the accumulation of an overflowing national debt.

After warning that Congress had passed a very high tax, he warned of the dangers of this in ways that sound surprisingly modern:
Designing politicians will support it to conciliate their favor and to obtain the means of profuse expenditure for the purpose of purchasing influence in other quarters; and since the people have decided that the Federal Government can not be permitted to employ its income in internal improvements, efforts will be made to seduce and mislead the citizens of the several States by holding out to them the deceitful prospect of benefits to be derived from a surplus revenue collected by the General Government and annually divided among the States; and if, encouraged by these fallacious hopes, the States should disregard the principles of economy which ought to characterize every republican government, and should indulge in lavish expenditures exceeding their resources, they will before long find themselves oppressed with debts which they are unable to pay, and the temptation will become irresistible to support a high tariff in order to obtain a surplus for distribution. Do not allow yourselves, my fellow-citizens, to be misled on this subject. The Federal Government can not collect a surplus for such purposes without violating the principles of the Constitution and assuming powers which have not been granted. It is, moreover, a system of injustice, and if persisted in will inevitably lead to corruption, and must end in ruin. The surplus revenue will be drawn from the pockets of the people--from the farmer, the mechanic, and the laboring classes of society; but who will receive it when distributed among the States, where it is to be disposed of by leading State politicians, who have friends to favor and political partisans to gratify ?
So Jackson must have seen an early draft of the stimulus bill.
It will certainly not be returned to those who paid it and who have most need of it and are honestly entitled to it. There is but one safe rule, and that is to confine the General Government rigidly within the sphere of its appropriate duties. It has no power to raise a revenue or impose taxes except for the purposes enumerated in the Constitution, and if its income is found to exceed these wants it should be forthwith reduced and the burden of the people so far lightened.
Thank you, I'll take crackpot Jackson over the current occupants of his political party.


  1. Remind me. Who was the last President to pay off the national debt?

  2. jdege, if I take your meaning correctly, I think you may be confusing "debt" with "deficit." For more than a hundred years, there has been national debt. However, the last president to start paying it down by presiding over a surplus in the budget was Bill Clinton. However, this feat was most assuredly not accomplished by reducing spending or raising taxes. Rather, the general economic prosperity of the time resulted in a rise in national wealth and thus a bigger pool of tax revenue.

  3. Jackson actually paid it off, in full.

    To be fair to Clinton, the tax increases that afflicted me so severely in 1993 (my best year of income yet) did play a part in reducing the deficit. It is true that Republican control of Congress starting in 1995 reduced (briefly) spending, causing the dramatic economic expansion that helped to start paying the debt down.

  4. No, I meant debt, not deficit. There have been other Presidents who ran a surplus. in effect paying down the debt.

    Jackson was the only President in American history to completely pay off the debt.

  5. "the last president to start paying it down by presiding over a surplus in the budget was Bill Clinton"

    Why do people believe this?

    It's not correct. The debt went up every single year Clinton was President.

    We didn't start paying our debt down... we borrowed money every year he was President.

    He had no surplus. He had a "projected" surplus. It was inaccurate. Of course.

    I do wish we could go back to those days where the deficit was so low it could be confused with a surplus. But let's be accurate. Check the US Debt level for each year Clinton was president and you will find it went up each year.

  6. I'm confused... when did Presidents begin appropriating money?

    And Bill Clinton, the economic genius, eh? I wonder if the fact 6 of his 8 years included a Republican majority in the Congress had anything to do with his economic record, hmmmm?

  7. Clinton didn't really run a surplus, if you separate the Social Security/Medicare trust funds, which were growing faster than the deficit in other parts of the budget.

    Because those trust funds hold Treasury securities, the "public debt" did go down for a few years, but the total debt went up every year.

  8. As far as I know, 'The Monster' is correct. While there were budget surpluses after the 'Contract with America' Republican takeover, the actual national debt continued to rise. My understanding is that what happened is that there were surpluses in Social Security revenues (Unlike what we are faced with now and in the future) and when SS has surpluses they are required by statute to buy Treasuries, thus on paper, increasing the revenue of the Government.
    Of course, since our current Congress didn't deign to actually pass a budget this year, they can't be accused of running a deficit.
    Or can they???

  9. If you and I sat down to talk over a beer, you’d find that we have a lot in common, which made reading your interpretation of Jackson’s farewell speech so painful. Please read everything you can about President Jackson’s administration. Read how he stacked his cabinet with powerful businessmen and newspaper editors. Read about the Indian Removal Act, how he expelled people living in clapboard houses and owning small businesses, then shipping them to Oklahoma so he could claim their land, “because they weren’t using it.” I’m no fan of Indians, but I believe in doing to others as I would have done to me. If a President sent soldiers into my house, destroyed my fields and business, just to sell the land beneath it to his cronies, then watched as my loved ones died of hunger while walking from North Carolina to Oklahoma, I might go after a few scalps. No, President Jackson’s farewell speech about the banks was not a statement against big business, but a bitter diatribe because they bested him. So strong was the power of his popularity that the Senate was only able to censure him. Sound like the 1990s? It should. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t support big banks. Instead, study Jackson and you’ll understand why Obama’s Democrats call themselves Jacksonian Democrats and hail him as the Father of the Democrat Party. They share the same lust for power, the same preference for “democracy” as opposed to “republicanism,” because, as this last election showed, the ordinary voter in democracies can be easily manipulated. Don’t be fooled by the news media when they taunt Republicans, saying that only 5% of Americans support Congress. Remember, dictatorships call themselves “democratic” and claim to be “democratically” elected. Beware, for their intent is to hand power to judges and the President. Oh, and check out Jackson’s campaign techniques. He invented community organizing. I almost wonder if Marx studied Jackson before writing his manifesto. Please, do not praise anything about this man if you love liberty.

  10. The following quote is also from Jackson's farewell speech: "In our domestic concerns there is everything to encourage us, and if you are true to ourselves nothing can impede your march to the highest point of national prosperity. The States which had so long been retarded in their improvement by the Indian tribes residing in the midst of them are at length relieved from the evil, and this unhappy race – the original dwellers in our land – are now placed in a situation where we may well hope that they will share in the blessings of civilization and be saved from that degradation and destruction to which they were rapidly' hastening while they remained in the States; and while the safety and comfort of our own citizens have been greatly promoted by their removal, the philanthropist will rejoice that the remnant of that ill-fated race has been at length placed beyond the reach of injury or oppression, and that the paternal care of the General Government will hereafter watch over them and protect them." Would you really agree with the man who wrote this? I wouldn't believe anything he said.

  11. I actually called him a crackpot -- and his treatment of the Indians is one of the reasons that I regard him with considerable distaste. I was just pointing out that in some respects, he has more in common with the Tea Party than the modern Democratic Party, and as obnoxious as he was, he was still better than the modern Democratic Party. (Admittedly, it isn't hard to improve on them.)