In 1834, Andrew Jackson became the first and only president to be censured by Congress in a fight over the future of the national bank.
In one of the most contentious feuds between the legislative and executive branches of U.S. government, Jackson defied the majority in Congress by refusing to re-charter the Second Bank of the United States. In response, the opposing National Republicans condemned Jackson as a tyrant for using his executive power to destroy the Bank.
Jackson and the Bank
Andrew Jackson became president in 1829 amidst recent memories of the economic depression sparked by the Panic of 1819. Many had blamed the Second Bank of the United States for causing the panic because the Bank had inflated the currency by issuing paper money and offering generous loans to businesses with little or no collateral in return.
Members of Jackson’s Democratic Party opposed a national bank because they believed it catered to elitists and special interests, thus helping the rich get richer. Jackson himself denounced the Bank as “a hydra-headed monster… that… impaired the morals of the people, corrupted our statesmen, and threatened our liberty.”
Jackson’s opponents, remnants of the National Republicans that later became known as the Whigs, supported the Bank because they believed it provided financial stability to the national economy. As such, they were horrified by Jackson’s incendiary attacks on the Bank and sought to prevent the Bank’s charter from expiring.
The Bank Charter Veto
In 1832, the National Republicans in Congress led by Henry Clay passed a bill re-chartering the Second Bank for another 20 years. Since it was a presidential election year, the National Republicans did not believe that Jackson would risk losing re-election by vetoing the bill. But to their shock, Jackson did exactly that.
While Jackson made several constitutional arguments to justify his veto, his opponents charged that he opposed the Bank for purely political reasons, thus abusing his veto power. Bank President Nicholas Biddle called Jackson’s veto a “manifesto of anarchy.” Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster, the Bank’s legal counsel and director of the Boston branch, called the veto “a political tool.” To the dismay of the National Republicans, the veto was popular among the voters and Jackson won re-election in the fall of 1832.
Emboldened by his victory, Jackson went even further by ordering the withdrawal of government funds from Bank’s vaults, effectively killing the Bank by depriving it of the capital needed to make loans. He fired two Treasury secretaries before finding one that would obey his order. Up to this time in U.S. history, Congress had been the most dominant branch of government, but with these actions, Jackson shifted the balance of power to the presidency. Consequently many congressmen resolved to make him pay.
Jackson is Censured
The Bank battle alarmed the National Republicans, many of whom believed that Jackson intended to establish an imperial-type presidency. They cited the fact that Jackson had vetoed more bills than all his predecessors combined as evidence that he was a “tyrant” or a “dictator.”
Moreover, Jackson used the power of patronage (i.e., granting government jobs) to political supporters, thus permanently entrenching Democrats in the government apparatus. This massive increase in the size of government was unprecedented up to that time.
In December 1833, the National Republican majority in the Senate demanded that Jackson surrender documents related to removing deposits from the Bank. When Jackson refused, Henry Clay issued a censure resolution. After a 10-week debate, the Senate voted 26 to 20 to censure President Jackson for assuming power not conferred upon him by the Constitution.
The Censure is Expunged
When Jackson issued a protest denying the validity of the Senate’s actions, the Senate refused to publish the protest in its journal. Meanwhile the Democrats worked to have the censure removed from the record. In January 1837, just before Jackson left office, the Senate voted 24 to 19 to remove the censure. The 1834 Senate journal was retrieved, the secretary ringed the censure in black and wrote, “Expunged by the order of the Senate” over it. The pen used to expunge the censure was delivered to Jackson.
The Senate has not censured a president since. In the 1990s, a motion was made to censure President Bill Clinton for perjury and obstruction of justice during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, but the motion was not voted upon. The removal of Jackson’s censure helped solidify his legacy of consolidating political power in the presidency. The trend continues to this day.