The Federal Government

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The Federal Government


Weak Presidency. With the exception of Andrew Jackson, American presidents of the 18151850 period paled in comparison to those who had served earlier. They generally refused to assert the power of the office and allowed Congress to form and implement policy. Americas traditional fear of a strong executive and its republican ideology, which placed a premium on liberty at the expense of power, worked against any presidential desire to expand the role of the office. James Madison, who left office in 1817, went as far as supporting a program of protective tariffs, a national bank, a stronger military, and internal improvements (all of which he had initially opposed), but his support was tempered by his fear that federal funding of improvements might be unconstitutional. Madison even vetoed an improvements bill due to his constitutional scruples, one of only two times the veto was used before Jacksons presidency.


The winter of 18281829 was unusually cold. By early March 1829 the weather had thawed, and the change in weather was accompanied by a change in government. The peoples candidate had finally been elected. The day of Andrew Jacksons inauguration, 4 March 1829, was unseasonably warm. A large crowd of between ten thousand and twenty thousand flocked to the capital. Some had traveled five hundred miles to see Jackson inaugurated. His address that day was purposefully vague, but plagued by a persistent cough, his voice was so low that few heard a word he said. When he finished he looked at the crowd, and a great roar of applause greeted him anyway. Jackson mounted a horse and slowly led a procession to the White House. Much of the crowd followed him, hoping for a glimpse of their hero. When they arrived at the presidential mansion they surged forward into the building, finding food and punch laid out. The crowd broke glasses and dishes, muddied carpets, and spat tobacco juice on the floor. Hoping to see the general, many stood on the furniture, cursed, and got drunk. Jacksons friends feared the crowd might accidentally harm him as they pushed forward to shake his hand, and he was whisked out a side window. Realizing that the mob was attracted to the punch bowls, several waiters moved them to the front lawn, and the crowd followed. Traditionalists were shocked; one wrote, What a scene we did witness! ... a rabble, a mob, of boys, negros, women, children, scrambling, fighting, romping. What a pity, what a pity. Daniel Webster remarked, They really seem to think that the country is rescued from some dreadful danger. To Jacksons followers, who cared little about tradition, the new president was a man of the people, and the people were entitled to celebrate.

Source: John Mayfield, The New Nation: 18001845 (New York: Hill & Wang, 1982).

Jackson. Jacksons election signaled a change. He believed the president should use his power to defend the peoples liberty against other institutional sources of power, especially banks. One way that Jackson asserted his power was through the distribution of federal jobs and contracts, or patronage. He had nearly ten thousand positions to distribute, small by later standards but far more than the few hundred that earlier presidents had had at their disposal. Jacksons personal popularity helped him to expand the presidency, but his aggressive acts aroused his opponents and led them to form an opposition party. They labeled Jackson King Andrew I and took the name Whigs for themselves, after the English political party that opposed the tyranny of the monarchy in the late seventeenth century. After Jackson the presidency was again diminished. The rise of the Second Party System and sectional conflict over slavery led both parties to nominate presidential candidates who were either apolitical military heroes or obscure dark horses. Since these candidates views were not well known, politicians in each section were able to tailor their candidates positions to suit sectional concerns. Once in office Jacksons successors had a difficult road, as they found that assertive leadership angered one section or the other while passivity sometimes resulted in events spinning out of control.

Congress. The institutional makeup of Congress changed little between 1815 and 1850. Most policy and legislation was initiated in Congress, which also ran the day-to-day business of government. Few bills were vetoed, but American fear of centralized power kept the role of Congress and the federal government relatively small. The public was close to the seat of power, and citizens frequently sent petitions to Congress, many of which were acted on. Few of these petitions touched on matters of great national importance, with the exception of the antislavery petitions of the 1830s and 1840s; most involved minor, personal matters such as pensions and claims against the government. Thus, congressmen experienced moments of great national consequence separated by days or months of routine administration.

House of Representatives. The center of federal power was the House of Representatives. Most major legislation originated in the House, and control of the purse strings in an era of frugality enhanced this power. In fact the countrys total expenditures from 1815 to 1850 were under $3 billion, or one-sixth of the total expenditures between 1860 and 1865. The House worked through a committee system and frequently spent its time on mundane issues and on citizens personal matters. There also was frequent turnover, partially because voters did not hesitate to look to new men and because many representatives could not afford to do more than to serve briefly and then return home to their regular occupations. Those who stayed in office often ended up in debt. No Speaker of the House, except perhaps for Henry Clay, wielded power assertively. In 1824 the House was called on to determine the next president after no candidate received a majority of electoral votes; political parties afterward sometimes tried to throw elections to the House so its members, rather than the voters, could select the president, but the experience of 1824 was not repeated. As sectional tensions rose through the 1840s, the battle between northern and southern legislators for control of the Speakers chair at the beginning of each new Congress foreshadowed greater conflict to come. It was not unusual for several weeks to pass before a Speaker was elected and committees formed. The Constitutions Three-Fifths Compromise overrepresented the South; with roughly 40 percent of the white population, southern representatives often made up 50 percent of the House.

Senate. Until the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913, senators were elected by state legislatures, where loyalty to party and interest groups often counted more than public service. The Senates main role was to ratify treaties and on a few occasions to impeach federal officials. It frequently concurred with the House on economic issues. As the debate over the extension of slavery into the territories increased, the Senate, evenly balanced between North and South, became the place where southerners blocked various legislation aimed at limiting slavery. When the House voted for the Wilmot Proviso, which would have barred slavery from the Mexican Cession, southerners in the Senate blocked it. This was also an age of great senatorial orators, with Clay, John C. Calhoun, and Daniel Webster all debating the issues of the day with the course of the Union frequently hanging in the balance.

Bureaucracy. Though it had grown significantly from the 1790s, the federal government remained small by later standards. The presidents cabinet contained only six members, and the few patronage jobs were limited to customs collectors and postal positions. Efforts to expand the cabinet failed until the late 1840s. When John Quincy Adams tried to create an interior department, he was rebuffed by Congress; not until 1849 was Zachary Taylor able to appoint a secretary of the interior.


Daniel W. Howe, The Political Culture of the American Whigs (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979);

Richard P. McCormick, The Second American Party System: Party Formation in the Jacksonian Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1966).

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The Federal Government

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