« PreviousContinue »
ADMINISTRATION OF VAN BUREN.
The inauguration of Martin Van Buren, as the eighth president of the United States, took place at the capitol, in the city of Washington, on Sat. urday, the 4th of March, 1837. At twelve o'clock on that day, the weather being remarkably pleasant, the president elect took his seat with his venerable predecessor, General Jackson, in a beautiful phaeton made from the wood of the frigate Constitution, and presented to General Jackson by the democracy of the city of New York. They were escorted from the president's house to the capitol, through Pennsylvania avenue, by a body of cavalry and infantry, and were also accompanied by an immense concourse of citizens. After reaching the senate-chamber the procession was formed, and Mr. Van Buren, attended by the ex-president, the members of the senate, of the cabinet, and the diplomatic corps, led the way to the rostrum erected on the ascent to the eastern portico. He then delivered his inaugural address, in clear and impressive tones, and in an easy and eloquent manner. At the close of the address, the oath of office was administered by Chief-Justice Taney.
The language of the inaugural address, the assurances of the government official journal, published at the seat of government, and other declarations, satisfied the people that the measures of Mr. Van Buren's administration would be a continuation of those adopted by General Jackson, and consequently no change might be expected. The new president selected for his cabinet, John Forsyth, of Georgia, for secretary of state ; Levi Woodbury, of New Hampshire, secretary of the treasury; Joel R. Poinsett, of South Carolina, secretary of war; Mahlon Dickerson, of New Jersey, secretary of the navy ; Amos Kendall, of Kentucky, postmastergeneral; and Benjamin F. Butler, of New York, attorney-general. All of these gentlemen, except Mr. Poinsett, had been appointed by General Jackson to the respective offices named, and they were continued by Mr. Van Buren. Mr. Poinsett succeeded General Cass, who, in 1836, was appointed by General Jackson minister to France.
Early in the year 1837, indications were perceived of a money pres. sure of unexampled severity, not produced as that of 1834 had been, by the contest with the bank of the United States (for that institution was now only a state bank, and so much embarrassed as to be powerless), but other and more formidable causes. It was some time before those unacquainted with banking operations could be induced to believe the alarm of the bankers in New York and other cities to be so well founded, as experience proved it really was. It was not until the failure of several great commercial and banking houses in New York, New Orleans, and other Atlantic cities, that the panic became general among the people.
The specie circular issued by General Jackson in the summer of 1836, which we have noticed in our account of his administration, had been powerful in its operation upon the banks and currency. This circular, or order, requiring all payments for the public lands to be made in gold or silver, produced frequent and sometimes large drafts for specie on the banks. This course not only prevented the banks from extending their line of discount, but compelled them to commence calling in their circulating notes.
The distribution of the surplus funds among the several states also seriously embarrassed the operations of the banks, and, from the mode in which it was managed, contributed to derange the currency. The banks with whom the accumulated surplus had been deposited, were not prepared for the distribution, inasmuch as they had presumed these funds would generally remain in deposite with them until the exigencies of the government should require its expenditure, and had, therefore, treated the funds of the United States as so much capital on which they could make loans to their customers. They had, therefore, undoubtedly, made large loans, relying on these government funds as an addition to their ordinary means, not likely soon to be called for.
The order issued from the treasury department, in pursuance of the law, for the distribution of these funds among the several states, was to the banks extremely embarrassing, and compelled them to call in their loans. They complained that the mode of distribution adopted by the secretary, Mr. Woodbury, was unwise and unnecessarily oppressive.
Another cause of pecuniary embarrassment and pressure was the excessive importation of merchandise from Europe, beyond the abilities and wants of the country, payments for which falling due, and American credit being impaired in London, occasioned a demand on the banks for specie, to be shipped to Europe.
The reaction in speculation had now commenced, and this accumulaiion of difficulties could not be withstood by the banks. On the 10th of May, 1837, all the banks in the city of New York, without exception, by common consent, suspended payments in specie. The banks of Boston, Providence, Hartford, Albany, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, and others in every quarter, on learning that the banks in New York had suspended specie payments, adopted the same course. On the 16th of May, the
legislature of New York passed an act authorizing the suspension of specie payments by the banks of that state for one year.
During the preceding two months, unprecedented embarrassments and difficulties were experienced among the mercantile classes, and were felt in all the commercial towns in the United States; especially in New York and New Orleans. The number of large failures which took place in New York in a short time, was about three hundred, their liabilities amounting to many millions. In two days, houses in New Orleans stopped payment, owing an aggregate of twenty-seven millions of dollars. In Boston one hundred and sixty-eight failures took place in six months.
A committee was appointed by a numerous meeting of the citizens of New York, to proceed to Washington and request the president of the United States to rescind the specie circular, to defer commencing suits upon unpaid bonds, and to call an extra meeting of Congress. In their interview with the president they presented an address stating, that “under a deep impression of the propriety of confining their declarations within moderate limits, they affirmed, that the value of their real estate had, within the last six months, depreciated more than forty millions of dollars ; that within the preceding two months there had been more than two hundred and fifty failures of houses engaged in extensive business; that within the same period a decline of twenty millions had occurred in their local stocks, including those railroad and canal incorporations which, though chartered in other states, depended chiefly upon New York for their sale ; that the immense amount of merchandise in their warehouses had, within the same period, fallen in value at least thirty per cent. ; that within a few weeks not less than twenty thousand individuals, depending upon their daily labor for their daily bread, had been discharged by their employers, because the means of retaining them were exhausted ; and that a complete blight had fallen upon a community heretofore so active, enterprising, and prosperous: the errors of our rulers,” they declared,“ had produced a wider desolation than the pestilence which depopulated our streets, or the conflagration which laid them in ashes."
Several petitions from other commercial cities and towns, had been presented to the president, requesting that he would summon a meeting of Congress at an early day. The president for some time declined to act on the petitions, but the suspension of specie payments by the banks, and the consequent exigency in which the financial affairs of the government was placed, finally induced him to issue his proclamation, on the 15th of May, for the convening of Congress on the first Monday in September, on account of “great and weighty matters claiming their consideration."
Previous to the suspension of specie payments by the banks, some of the friends of the president entertained a hope that he would afford some relief to the business community, by revoking the “specie circular” of the treasury department, which had been issued by order of General Jackson in July, 1836, requiring gold and silver in payments for the public lands; but in this hope they were disappointed, and it was soon evident that it was the intention of President Van Buren to carry out the designs of his predecessor in establishing a specie currency; especially in all concerns relating to the finances of the general government. According to the report of the secretary of the treasury, in December, 1836, the condition of the currency of the United States was estimated as follows at that period : bank paper in active circulation, one hundred and twenty millions of dollars ; specie in active circulation, twenty-eight millions; specie in banks, forty-five millions.
The extra session, being the first, of the twenty-fifth Congress, coinmenced on the 4th of September, 1837, and continued forty-three days, namely, until the 16th of October. The state of parties in the house of representatives was exhibited in the choice of speaker. James K. Polk, the administration candidate, was for the second time elected to that station, receiving 116 votes, against 103 for John Bell (whig), and 5 scattering. It became evident, however, that there was in the administration ranks a small section, whose views respecting the currency did not coincide with those of the president, but were favorable to banking institutions and the preservation of the credit system, as applied to the transaction of the business community. Hence arose a third party, which exercised considerable influence in many parts of the Union, and, adopting the name of "conservatives,” eventually became an ally of the whigs, in their opposition to the administration. In consequence of the course of these conservatives, some of the measures recommended by the president were defeated in the house of representatives at this and the following session.
The recommendations of the president in his message to Congress at the extra session, promised no relief to the people. Indeed, the opinion that document distinctly expressed was, that the national legislature could do nothing to mitigate the evils which existed, and which, it stated, were occasioned by the unwise conduct of the business community ; that it was not the duty or design of the general government to interfere in such
The doctrine was advanced in the message, that all the government could do or was designed to do, was to take care of itself, and could not be expected to legislate with reference to the monetary concerns of the people. The actual condition of the government, in relation to its financial concerns, was stated with great clearness and precision, and the reasons were given which rendered the call of the extra session absolutely necessary.
The most important recommendation of the message, was the measure which received from its opponents the name of the sub-treasury scheme. By the friends of the administration it was called the independent treasury. As the funds of the government were in the possession of banks, all of which refused to pay specie, and the use of their circulating notes
was a violation of the act, or resolution, of Congress, passed in 1816; and the president having been elected under a pledge against a national bank, he recommended that the treasury of the United States should be kept by public officers, and that there should be an entire and total separation of the business and funds of the government from those of the banks
The announcement of this scheme by the administration, caused great excitement in Congress and among the people. It was very unfavorably received by the political friends of the president, in the different states, who were interested in banks. It was represented by the opposition, whigs and conservatives, as a direct attack upon the banks and what was called the credit system. They insisted, that if the president's views were carried out, the prostration and destruction of all banks would be inevitable, and that finally a metallic currency would alone constitute the circulating medium, which would be wholly inadequate to the exigencies of a commercial community. Another consequence which they predicted, assuming that the banks were to be destroyed, was a reduction of prices, fatal and ruinous to the debtor.*
The official paper at the seat of government, the Globe, having been zealous and active in support of the new treasury scheme, and in opposition to the banking system, the conservatives in the house of representa. tives opposed the election of the publishers of that paper (Messrs. Blair and Rives) as printers to the house. After several ballottings, the whigs joined the conservatives, and elected Thomas Allen, editor of the Madi. sonian, a conservative newspaper, printer to the house.
A bill to establish the proposed independent treasury was reported by Mr. Wright, chairman of the committee on finance, in the senate, and, after considerable discussion, passed that body by a vote of 26 ayes, to 20 noes. In opposing the measure, Mr. Clay, of Kentucky, said, that “the project was neither desirable nor practicable, nor within the constitutional power of the general government, nor just; and that it was contrary to the habits of the people of the United States, and dangerous to their liberties. He declared, that after the most deliberate and anxious consideration of which he was capable, he could conceive of no adequate remedy for the disorders which unhappily prevailed, which did not comprehend a national bank as an essential part. The great want of the country was a general and uniform currency, and a point of union, a sentinel, a regulator of the issues of the local banks; and that would be supplied by such an institution.” No effort, however, was made at this time to introduce the question of a national bank, in Congress, in consequence of the well-known feelings of the president and his party against it.
The sub-treasury bill from the senate was taken up in the house of rep. resentatives, but after an excited debate it was laid on the table, by the combined vote of whigs and conservatives, ayes 120, noes 107. It was