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President Jackson Divides the Spoils
by William P. Meyers

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Andrew Jackson was a President of the United States of America and the founder of the Democratic Party. Before his election he murdered many of his fellow men and lived a life of depravity unmatched, so far as we know, by any other American President.

Continued from Andrew Jackson and the Democratic Party, 1825 to 1828

Andrew Jackson left his slave plantation, the Hermitage near Nashville, Tennessee, on the eighteenth of January 1829, to assume the Presidency of the United States of America. He did not arrive in Washington, D.C. until February 18th. John Henry Eaton arranged for him to enter the city unannounced, for a horde of office seekers were awaiting him. Jackson stayed at Gadsby's hotel, where he was besieged by men who believed they were owed a lucrative Federal office because they had joined the new Democratic Party. When not after an audience with Jackson they managed to precipitate a city-wide shortage of whiskey.

Only eleven thousand jobs or offices could be handed out by President Jackson, but that assumed he would sweep out all of the old office holders. Even then, the number of men seeking the positions far exceeded the number available. Jackson lamented "self-exertion was about to be abandoned and dependence for a livelihood placed upon the government" [James, p. 490]. Before filling the other possible vacancies, Jackson focused on choosing a cabinet. John Eaton, who had organized the entire campaign and new Democratic Party, was reluctant to accept a post because of his recent, somewhat scandalous, marriage to Margaret Timberlake. Yet Jackson insisted, and so Eaton became Secretary of War. Really he was Jackson's closest confident.

Martin Van Buren, whose New York political machine had been so critical to Jackson's success, was named Secretary of State. Samuel Ingham became Secretary of the Treasury. John Berrien was chosen for Attorney General, John Branch for Secretary of the Navy. John McLean had been postmaster general under Adams, but had campaigned for Jackson, and so was allowed to retain his post, which was elevated to the Cabinet level.

The nation, or at least Jackson enthusiasts, believed that democracy had arrived. Jackson, believing President Adams had some part in the election rumors about Rachel Jackson, snubbed him. But an uncounted number of people turned out for Jackson's swearing in on March 4th at the capitol. Then the crowd followed him down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. The crowd, uninvited, forced its way in to the tables where the elite were to be served cakes, ice-cream, and orange punch. The invitees for the most part shied away as the party-goers jostled each other for food and for glimpses of Jackson. Much china and glassware was broken. President Andrew Jackson escaped through a back door, and that was as close as American democracy has ever come to feeding ordinary people the fare reserved for the rich. A ball that evening was better controlled. The rich and powerful were again in control of the democratic rabble.

President Andrew Jackson's First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1829 [Library of Congress]

The office seekers were not a mere nuisance. They were also the shock troops of the new Democratic Party. Andrew Jackson asked his new Postmaster, who headed the largest department of government, to remove Adams partisans from their offices. McLean said then he must make it a general rule, and remove Jackson campaigners as well. Jackson then offered McLean a Supreme Court seat, which was accepted. William T. Barry of Kentucky, a more willing divider of the spoils, became Postmaster General.

All of Jackson's election counselors also received high federal posts, but they also stayed as close Jackson advisors, the Kitchen Cabinet. When the Senate adjourned Jackson announced a batch of "recess appointments," which needed no confirmation, and which dispatched both competent and incompetent employees alike. To justify the division of spoils as reform, Jackson required strict accountability of his appointees. Yet in that decree the President added "It becomes his duty to dismiss all officers who were appointed against the manifest will of the people or whose official station, by a subserviency to selfish electioneering purposes, was made to operate against the freedom of election." That would be the freedom of the people to elect Jackson, not their freedom to re-elect Adams. [James, p. 500]

The clean sweep did have some benefits to the public, for of course instances of corruption were uncovered, which were widely advertised by the Jacksonian newspapers. Vice-President Calhoun and Secretary of State Van Buren jostled to get their men as many Jackson appointments as possible. Meanwhile, the army of supplicants began to realize that their chances for lucrative federal office diminished each passing week, as their hotel debts climbed.

It was one William L. Marcy of New York, not Jackson himself, who who described the situation with the characteristic phrase "To the victors belong the spoils." [James p. 503]

Next: President Jackson's Agenda

Main source: The Life of Andrew Jackson by Marquis James, Bobbs-Merrill company, 1938.

Learn more: President Andrew Jackson main page

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